My Favorite Joe Pagac Mural

I’m from Tucson and have resided here for all my 20 years on this earth. Alongside that comes familiarity with the sparkling art community that Tucsonans are quite lucky to have. What’s particularly special about the art scene in Tucson is the murals that bring life to the city. Every year I find new murals around town that ignite excitement as I’m minding my regular day, and I revisit murals that never dull my smile. As an aspiring artist myself, I feel a very personal connection to and passion for the paintings I see decorating our landscape. I have my own personal favorites, of course, and after peering just a bit closer at them it was very clear that I must gravitate toward a very specific style; as it turns out, most of my top picks are all by the one and only Joe Pagac.

Also having grown up in Tucson, Joe Pagac is renowned and treasured by the Tucson community as a local muralist. His works splatter dozens of walls with whimsical desert landscapes, and it is this almost surrealist style of his that captivates me. Whether you are new to Tucson or a local, it’s likely you’ve seen his playful work. For University of Arizona students, familiar murals might include the the fantastical whale mural on the corner of Grant Rd. and Campbell Ave., depicting whales swimming over the landscape. Or the one on the corner of 6th St. and Stone Ave. featuring a woman riding a bicycle while her dress billows behind her and becomes the desert. But the mural that most recently captured my attention is not quite so large and glamorous as these two, and is instead more like a hidden gem. This piece is located in Himmel Park on the corner of E. 1st St. and N. Tucson Blvd., only a five-minute drive from the university.

Love at first sight…

The past two years, Himmel Park provided a comforting picnic spot for me and friends amidst a pandemic that made socializing tricky. The grassy expanse is a consistency of my childhood and therefore holds much nostalgia that couldn’t be ruined by social distancing. There is a small mural there, just finished in 2021, that I did not notice until earlier this year upon coming back to the park after many months. It made me literally stop and stare, open mouth gaping.

The mural in question is continuous, with differing images leading into the next to wrap around the wall to the Himmel Pool. It’s a perfect combination of imaginative elements that give one a sense of childlike wonder, and a tribute to our beautiful desert. This combination is a major trademark of Pagac’s work. When I first wandered past this particular mural, the giant eyes of baby animals playing with toys caught my own eye, and filled me with admiration. I couldn’t pull my gaze away until the mural was behind me, and even then it being out of sight could not put it out of my mind for weeks. I returned later, buzzing with anticipation to observe the mural in great detail, and I saw that there was so much more than I had initially noticed.

So much to see and appreciate

There’s a bench in front of the mural that decorates the Himmel Pool wall. It’s a beautiful little bench, topped with colorful mosaic pieces, and it’s perfect for sitting and viewing Joe Pagac’s celebration of childhood. I sat on that bench, soaking in the already hot morning sun and drinking up the sweet air of the park I’ve known since my own care-free days there. It brought me a simple and quiet contentment to sit and view a mural designed to evoke just that. In the center of the mural sit the baby animals: a coyote, a tortoise, and a bobcat. Beside them on the right is the giant image of a round bird with a great red chest.

As I perched on the bench, trying to identify the painted mountain ranges of the landscape’s background, a little bird with a great red chest zipped past my eye-line and perched on the fence next to the mural. It was quite poetic that a vermilion flycatcher, the bird with bright color that is so often spotted in Himmel Park, landed next to a mural that features that very bird and its vibrant plumage.

 I got a chance to speak with Joe Pagac about this particular mural, which he created in memorial to his own childhood; a childhood in which he lived right across the street from Himmel park. A fun fact I learned from him was that the bird that was to be included in the painting was originally a cardinal, but the creative process took a turn for the better when he began painting. The lively vermillion flycatcher inhabits the park in great numbers, and this realization changed his vision for the mural. In his words, “at the end of the day I just want to be really happy with whatever I just painted”, and for this mural that meant taking inspiration as it came and running with it.

Pagac also revealed that the mountain ranges in the mural are only loosely based on the Catalina Mountains that can be seen to the north of Tucson. They are not, in fact, identifiable as real mountain ranges — but it was still fun to try.

If you like lizards…

My absolute favorite part of gazing at the Himmel Park mural though, was the image to the left of the baby animals and their big eyes. Sunning on a rock, and back to back as friends, lounge two lizards lost in reading their books. One, the recognizable gila monster lizard, reading a book on how to lounge. How adorable. The other, a little brown lizard reading a “Frog and Toad” book. When I saw this element, it felt like I had been slingshot back into my days of reading the adored series.

Pagac shared the sentiment. “I grew up with it”, he said. “It has so many sweet stories, even as an adult.” He even always had a copy of it on his bedside table in his twenties.

Apart from the lighthearted genius of having a lizard read a book about a frog and a toad, the inclusion of such a personal detail in the painting did something else for me. It’s an incredibly special thing to create art that makes people feel personally connected to it, something I found in the Himmel Park mural when I saw the beloved “Frog and Toad” title. It really was the cherry on top.

It makes Tucson prettier!

What was especially compelling about the experience is that in that short time I spent glazing over and admiring the mural, I felt overwhelming love for the beauty of our Sonoran Desert; beauty that I have been guilty of overlooking or taking for granted. Joe Pagac’s intent as a muralist is beautification approach — making the urban streets of Tucson pretty.

In speaking to him further he mentioned that he appreciates the way in which beauty can inspire people to become more environmentally aware and to care about conservation efforts. He says “it’s really nice to feel like part of the community and like you’re giving back to it.” And although that’s not the main point of Pagac’s works, it’s a lovely effect that they end up having. They show how stunning the desert can be if we strive to preserve it. As I sat there, peacefully taking in the Himmel Park mural in all of its wondrous whimsy, I felt no lack of love for our Sonoran Desert.


Brissa Villa is in her first year as a Studio Art major at the University of Arizona.